Words: Becca Nelson
Craig Kaths’ studio is inhabited by ghosts. The 27-year-old Tampa Bay artist works in the former Covivant space, a local gallery that for years served as the backdrop for the brightest lights in the local art scene; their roster reads like a who’s who of past and present Bay area talent. The gallery closed when owner Carrie Mackin moved to New York, and was converted into small studios rented out by local artists – at first, many of whom showed at Covivant in years past. When I arrive the studio to see Kaths’ work and talk about his upcoming show at REAX Space, In Stereo, he informs me that everyone has pretty much left, the space just an echo of its past glory.
“Everyone’s moved out. It’s kinda weird.”
It is a little creepy in here. The remnants of past inhabitants have left a strange wallpaper: paint splatters, stickers and images taped to every imaginable surface, a grey haze of smudge pencil sketches sullying once-white plaster walls.
Kaths’ studio, however, is alive with activity. The artist, who graduated from USF with his BFA in Printmaking, is being featured in the second art installation at REAX Space, this magazine’s newly opened boutique and gallery in Ybor. The marriage of artist and publication is fitting; as Kaths explains, his work is entirely driven by music.
“My influences as an artist are heavily drawn from music and sound. I’ve played guitar since I was 12; I was a musician long before I became a visual artist. So I everything I do, art-wise, is taken from music and sound, attempting to physically embody it.”
Kaths’ primary medium is printmaking, and his work is, literally, made of sound. To create his multi-layered and incredibly complex works (a single print may use up to 700 screens), Kaths explodes the tiny technical illustrations such as one might find in the users’ manual for a 1950s turntable – an intricate sketch of a record needle, or the tiny gears that turn the wheels of a cassette – making screens of each minute drawing. These screens are then printed hundreds of times over, in endless combinations, to create each work.
“When I was writing my thesis at USF, I really delved into the theory that sound is the most important medium, because it’s intangible,” he says. “You can’t see it, you can’t put it down on paper. And yet listening to music has the ability to affect a person’s mood, or emotions, much more strongly than many tangible things.”
Kaths has thus made it his goal to manifest the invisible. To illustrate this, Kaths pulls out a drawer and shows me five small prints. They consist of layers and layers of abstract designs repeated in varying colors on top of a larger image which looks like the ghost of a record. Behind the densely printed detail, one sees faint lines invoking the grooves on a vinyl record.
“These are meant to go together,” Kaths explains, shuffling the order of the five pieces until I can see that where the design on one print ends; the next continues the motif, using both color and content. “Each print is 78 runs [meaning that each canvas was printed upon 78 different times], and the size of the image is the same size as a 78 record sleeve. Together, they represent a box set of 78s, something you don’t even really see anymore.”
Kaths is passionate about the physicality of music. It’s what drives his work. He’s also something of a purist; our conversation is peppered with remarks that point to this. “I’m not even listening to that much new music anymore because a lot of it is horrible,” he remarks at one point, when I ask what his musical influences are. Jimi Hendrix is the only artist he singles out in response.
He is equally purist about his current medium. As opposed to the multitude of local artists whose sales rely upon screen-printed t-shirts and other consumer-friendly items that sell for under $20, Kaths is devoted to printmaking as an art-form, and refuses to sacrifice his work to make a quick buck.
“I know a lot of people associate screen-printing with just t-shirts and stuff, and it’s hard for them to understand that a screen-print is worth just as much as an original painting,” he says. “But I’m not about to show a print that sells for $60 next to a shirt with the same design that sells for $17.”
And that $60 print is the bottom rung for Kaths, whose labor-intensive screen-prints are priced upwards of $500. His loyalty to craft is not, obviously, going to prove especially lucrative, but Kaths isn’t that concerned about making money from his art, at least not here.
“Doing shows in Tampa can be frustrating. Ever since Covivant closed, a lot of the artists that were living in Tampa and actually attempting to make a living from it have moved. Trying to make money from this stuff,” he sighs, gesturing broadly to the room, “just doesn’t happen. Not that it’s just Tampa right now, I mean it’s everywhere. People don’t have money to buy a piece of paper.”
Luckily, Kaths’ enthusiasm stems from something other than monetary gain. The brief moment of frustration brought on by the tired discussion of making money as an artist is quickly eclipsed when he spots a new print hidden in the stack on his desk, and is reminded of his newest project, which he simply explains as “improvisational.”
“Sometimes I’ll come in here with no idea what I want to do, and I’ll just start printing,” he explains. “It’s a free-flowing experiment, which is what jazz comes from. I’m not sayin’ I’m a jazz musician because I print, but what I’m doing mimics the idea. Every movement is a reaction to the one that came before it, and nothing is planned out. I come to the studio with no preconceived notion.”
The prints he shows me now, I must admit, look very similar in style to his overtly conceptual work. But I am not one to judge; before talking to him I would have never looked at his artwork and seen a visual representation of a sound delay in an electronic recording; a drum beat laid down; or a 300-print deep work, simply titled “Same Songs Every Day,” that visualizes, in its density of color and repeated images, the monotonous drone that is commercial radio. Kaths enjoys the experiment he’s created for himself, the task of manifesting sound, that all-powerful medium, on paper. He admits that he doesn’t make art to make money, “but I wish I could.” In the meantime, though, the small rewards keep him going.
“It’s all serendipitous,” he says, referring again to his current improvisational series. “Sometimes I’ll look back at what I’ve done and realize, Wow! Those two things lined up! And that’s what I’m really going for. Happy accidents.”
Kaths’ exhibit In Stereo opens June 19 at REAX Space.